Laziness or Overwork: for Church Staff, Which Is Worse?

Guest Post by Chris Pappalardo

In his letter to the Colossians, the Apostle Paul said, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward” (Colossians 3:23-24a NIV). What does that look like when there’s such a close connection between your work for “human masters” and your work “for the Lord”? For those of us in ministry, what does it look like to follow Paul’s command?

Both an Honor and a Demand

I want to start by acknowledging that being on staff for a church is both a rare privilege and a demanding task. If the church is growing and God is at work, then being a paid staff member of that church is thrilling. You’re getting a steady paycheck to watch what God is doing in people’s lives. (Seriously, what could be better?) Granted, it’s not usually a gaudy paycheck, but think about it: How many people get paid to do something they know makes an eternal difference? Working for a church is often a joy and an honor.

And yet, it’s no dream world. For some of the same reasons working for a church is exciting, it can be rather challenging. Having a front row seat to what God is doing in people’s lives may be thrilling at times, but it can also be draining. People are messy. Many of them will clamor for too much of your time. They call at inopportune moments. Sure, you get to celebrate the highs, but you also have to dive down into the lows.

Then there are the unique scheduling challenges. Ministry hours can be awkward, to put it nicely. If you work for a church, you are generally required to do what a good church member would—attend church (including prayer nights, business meetings, and the rest), join a small group, volunteer. We encourage every member to do these things, of course, but if Jane McChurchMember doesn’t ever come to prayer meetings or skips church for a couple months when her work schedule is really busy, we can’t fire her from our church. If Joe McChurchStaffer does the same thing, however, he’ll likely have some trouble.

So working for a church is amazing. It’s also grueling. The more we recognize that working for a church is more of a both/and situation than an either/or one, the more we’ll be able to think about work in a healthy way.

Two “Ditches” for Church Staff Members

When it comes to church work, there seem to be two ditches that we can fall into. Like most errors, these aren’t black-and-white categories. For those of you in ministry, you may fit one of these categories better than the other. But you may also switch from one to the other, depending on the season. These are classic temptations when it comes to work, and there’s no reason to think we aren’t all tempted to both of them.

Ditch #1: Laziness

If nothing else, working “for the Lord” means working hard. I’ve worked in a handful of professions in my (relatively) short life, and it seems that laziness finds a happy home in just about any career. I’ve seen lazy waiters as well as lazy pastors. For the Christian, both are shameful. But there’s something particularly troubling about the paid staff of a church having a poor work ethic. We’re dealing with people’s souls here. That’s not a time to slack off.

Many of us—my own millennial generation especially—need to simply buckle down and get used to some gritty, tough work. We may be asked to do tasks that are outside our “sweet spot.” We may have to work long hours, weekends, or holidays. I’m not saying it’s easy or that we should let our work run us ragged. I am saying that a lot of people work demanding jobs, and busting your tail at times is a part of God-honoring work. Laziness, to put it bluntly, is a sin.

We also need to remember the privilege of our jobs. Not just the “We’re seeing lives transformed” privilege that I mentioned above. But the “This is actually a pretty sweet job” kind of privilege. There are perks to working in ministry that many of us can easily ignore. The people in our congregations usually spot those perks quicker than us—which is one reason they often envy our ministry role. At the Summit, for instance, we have designated times during our workweek when we stop to pray with one another. We are given enormous flexibility in order to go on short-term mission trips. We have a work atmosphere that is, by design, relatively casual, welcoming, and fun. Strictly from the job perspective, I’m incredibly thankful to work for the Summit.

Not every church operates like ours. But ministry-specific benefits are generally there. Perhaps it’s the annual retreat that the pastoral staff takes. Or the stipends that a church offers for pastors to finish their education. Or the flexibility to take a weekday off to make up for working during the worship services (which weekend volunteers don’t get!). A small dose of gratitude can help stave off feelings of self-pity when the job starts to wear on us.

The stresses of ministry are real, and they are heavy. But don’t make yourself out to be a martyr just because you’re working hard. We should all be doing that, whether our paycheck comes from a church or a fast food restaurant.

Ditch #2: Overworking

The flip side of this is another very real problem: Don’t actually make yourself a martyr by working too hard. Our American culture tends to overwork, with the main casualties being our families. And when you’re working for a church, doing “God’s work,” it can be much easier to justify working yourself to the point of burnout. But it’s no less sinful to neglect your family because you work for a church than it is if you work for IBM. In fact, it may be worse, because not only are you failing to rest—you’re also fostering resentment toward the church in your family.

You should do your work with excellence and intentionality. But you also need to rest with intentionality. (Not sure if you need to rest “with excellence.” Get back to me on that one.) You need this because it’s how God designed you. The Sabbath, as Jesus reminded us, was made for man, meaning it was designed for our good. God wants us to sleep at night. He wants us to take a day off every week to focus on him. He wants us to rest, relax, and play. It’s for our good.

We also need rest because resting says something about God. As Pastor J.D. says, “I don’t stop working because everything is done. It never is. I stop working because I’m not God.” More than anything else, the Sabbath reminds us that God is always at work and that we rely on him.

Those of us working in churches need to learn how to rest well, because we have churches full of people who need to learn this, too. So let’s lead the way here. Let’s turn off the email notifications on our phones. Let’s stop pulling the laptop out after dinner and working until 3:00 a.m. If you’re working on Saturday and Sunday, make sure you take a weekday off. God isn’t honored by a frantic and phenomenal burnout, so take the time you need to rest.

Church staff, listen: We aren’t martyrs, and we aren’t heroes. We’re simply men and women that God has chosen to serve him at this time. So let’s do that—working for God and resting for him, too.

If you’re curious for more practical tools to prevent burnout, check out Brad Hambrick’s helpful article on burnout.